Donald Ray Pollock’s latest novel, The Devil All The Time, is gritty, disturbing, violent, disgusting, horrific, sad, and foul-mouthed. Parts of this novel are also brilliant. The sinners pray and the preachers prey. Pollock’s characters include idol-worshippers, pornographic killers, and a cripple who performs sodomy on a clown. This is not light stuff. Yet Pollock describes these horrible losers in ways that makes the reader chuckle, only to be left aghast in the next paragraph. He leaves just a hint of caricature in his description to take the edge off. In the prologue, Arvin Russell follows his father Willard to Willard’s prayer log in the woods behind their dilapidated rented house where they pray. Later that day Willard teaches his son how to fight by beating up a man who had made comments about Willard’s wife Charlotte. The prologue is hauntingly beautiful.
When Charlotte is diagnosed with cancer, Willard grows obsessed with daily prayers at the prayer log and starts sacrificing animals. The escalation of these sacrifices builds slowly and horrifically. The whole part one of this novel is brilliant, particularly Arvin’s final words at the end.
Another thread of the novel is a murderous couple who each year take time off in the summer to kill hitchhikers. Carl calls himself a photographer but is purely a lunatic. His wife Sandy is simply disgusting and sad. Carl’s preference is to take photos of the young hitchhikers in sexual positions with Sandy before he puts a gun to their head and ends their miserable lives.
There’s also a preacher and his crippled buddy who run off and join a circus after the preacher kills his wife in order to try test his skills and bring her back from the dead. Another preacher sleeps around with underage girls and knocks one up. When the girl realizes she will have to face the consequences alone, she goes into a shed and hangs herself. This is an excellent example of why Pollock is so haunting. He doesn’t leave the scene when she enters the shed and finds some rope. He describes her final moments; how the rope doesn’t break her neck. She realizes she could probably make this pregnancy work as her windpipe cinches shut and she tries to sway her feet to a box. It’s horrific and sad.
Pollock is often compared to Flannery O’Connor because of their grotesque gothic style. There is one big difference though - O’Connor was a devout Catholic with a strong sense of faith that showed up peculiarly through her stories. Pollock’s landscape is bleaker. Pollock’s settings are more reminiscent of Larry Brown and Harry Crews.
In The Devil All The Time, evil is always present and lurking, and waiting for you to hitch a ride.
I interviewed Donald Ray Pollock a few weeks ago. You can read the interview here.